A Writer’s Journey (Part Five): Plotting and Pantsing – the Labyrinth and the Bull7 min read

by | Oct 18, 2017 | Writing

Note from the Editor: A Writer's Journey is a series that follows writer Mark R. Hems as he weathers the challenging yet rewarding terrain of writing a novel. Series Posts: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

In the previous instalment of my writer’s journey, I developed a hook so that I could be assured of a strong (and hopefully saleable) premise before I began writing.

This seemed like an altogether sensible and wise idea.

Unfortunately, stories are tempestuous beasts and mine reared its unruly head and decided it was having none of it.

Bucking and sneering in the face of order, it wriggled out of my attempts to ensnare it in a neatly forged pen of story symmetry and galloped off in the opposite direction. I tried to guide it back, but in the end I realised its new direction was actually more exciting, and instead just clung on like a cowboy wrestling a particularly boisterous bull.

Fortunately, this was not my first rodeo.

I’d written nearly two novels in this fashion so I was getting used to the unpredictability of the pantser approach. Still, I didn’t want this novel storming about in all directions until it found its course. I’d allowed that to happen in my last, failed attempt. And still bore the scars.

The problem I think, is that I’d followed the King method a little too religiously.

The King method, or, digging for dinosaurs

In his book On Writing, Stephen King says he plots as infrequently as possible, reasoning that our lives are largely plotless. He also says plotting and the creation of spontaneity aren’t compatible and goes on to suggest that every story pre-exists in the subconscious of the writer. It is the writer’s job, he says, to unearth it — much like an archaeologist excavating dinosaur bones.

Now, I’m a huge fan of Stephen King (I’ve read nearly all of his books) and I’m not going to argue with his rationale. Not least because he’s a writing legend, but also because I think it’s bang on. In fact, the first novel I published was written in exactly this way. However, I must admit I’ve always thought that novel, Sign of the Time, could have been better. That, if I’d understood the principles at the heart of great stories in a more conscious way, in a way that went beyond clutching at the tropes internalised through consuming countless books and movies, then that novel might have resonated with more people.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed more structure to organise and temper the bones of my story. So that when I clothed it with characters, locations and events, everything would hang neatly together.

See, what I’d finally realised about pantsing was that, without enough structure, you sometimes just end up with, well, pants.

And so I began to immerse myself in the wonderful world of plotting.

Image from Dinosaurs Love Underpants by Claire Freedman & Ben Cort

Plotting

In his book, The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker analyses hundreds of stories spanning the history of literature. Underpinning each of them, he argues, is one (or more) of just seven basic plots. He goes on to expound a theory that all stories manifest from internal structures of the collective unconscious; that every human being is born with an innate set of blueprints specifying how we should evolve. He contends that stories are only truly satisfying when fashioned to fit the grooves of those unconscious blueprints, or archetypes.

It’s a compelling argument. And one that has a significant amount of evidence to support it, amassed over the thirty-four years of the book’s development.

Booker goes on to suggest that every good story is in fact an allegory of the psychological struggle between self and ego: the ego cast as the shadow that the protagonist must overcome by rescuing the soul (or anima/animus) classically cast as the fair maiden. Only by going through the struggle of this conflict, he says, can the protagonist actualise the self beyond the base desires of the ego and grow. And it’s this growth, or in the case of inverted plots, decline, that’s the beating heart of any good story.

Now, whether you subscribe to this theory or not, Booker’s summary of plot types and the archetypes that function at their hearts, are useful for any writer to at least be aware of.

The seven basic plots he outlines are as follows:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

Computer says yes

Interestingly, there are similarities between these plot types and research conducted by computer scientists at the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide last year. Here, computers were used to analyse thousands of texts for certain emotional keywords considered representative of positive or negative experiences. These keywords were then plotted onto graphs that visualise the plots of each of the stories.

Six key plot types emerged from this data:

 

Images below are from “The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes” by Andrew J. Reagan, Lewis Mitchell, Dilan Kiley, Christopher M. Danforth, and Peter Sheridan Dodds.

Now, unless you’re writing literary fiction, its worthwhile deciding upfront which of these plots you’re going to write. Particularly if you want to write something saleable. Because they all have their own rules. And, while you can bend those rules, genre readers will be disappointed if you break them. Not least because it’s false advertising. If you sell a novel as one thing, and it turns out to be something else, it won’t meet expectations.

But, even more than that, if Booker is correct, maybe we should structure our stories to match these arcs as closely as possible, so as to best resonate with those inbuilt archetypes.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know any of this until I’d written several drafts of my novel!

All I knew was that too much pantsing wasn’t working, and neither was too much plotting.

What I needed, was a good combination of both.

But first I needed to learn more about the plotting techniques at my disposal. Join me next time when we’ll look at the Transformational Arc, the Three Act Structure, and the method that gives this blog series its name, the Hero’s Journey.

Until then, happy plotting!

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Tell us about your writer’s journey in the comments below.

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